High court rules against landowner, says state still owns rights to unused rail bed

Posted July 30, 2012, at 2:09 p.m.
Last modified July 30, 2012, at 7:12 p.m.

HANCOCK, Maine — The state supreme court has ruled against a landowner in Hancock and Steuben who sued the state over its rights and responsibilities to a former rail corridor that crosses his land.

Dale Henderson, owner of a logging company and a realty firm that own the properties, challenged the state’s claim that it had a right to the corridor even though no rail service had operated along it since 1985, when Maine Central Railroad ceased operations. Maine Department of Transportation subsequently took over rights to the corridor, which currently is used for the Down East Sunrise Trail, an 87-mile, multi-use trail that stretches between the town of Hancock in Hancock County and Pembroke in Washington County.

Henderson, who lives in Orrington, also contended that at the least, DOT should be required to erect a fence along the sides of the corridor where it crosses his property in order to keep people off his land.

Earlier this month, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled against Henderson and sided with the state. DOT holds a valid easement to the corridor in Washington County and owns the corridor outright in Hancock County, the court wrote in a July 19 decision. It also indicated that, though Maine Central Railroad at one time may have been under obligation to build and maintain a fence along the corridor, DOT is not subject to the same obligation.

Attempts Monday to contact attorneys on either side of the dispute were unsuccessful. A message left Monday at Henderson’s real estate company, Oak Leaf Realty, was not returned.

According to the Law Court decision, Henderson’s logging company bought property in Steuben on Dec. 22, 2008, and filed suit against the state two days later. The ruling does not indicate how much property in Steuben is owned by the logging company, but it says the rail corridor crosses the land for approximately 845 feet.

In Hancock, Henderson’s Oak Leaf Realty owns “several thousand acres of land,” according to the decision. The corridor crosses that property for approximately 21,400 feet, or four miles, the document indicates.

At one point, Henderson barricaded the old rail line where it crosses onto his land in both towns. Those barricades later were removed as the old rail bed was rebuilt and then opened to public use as a trail.

Ted Talbot, spokesman for MDOT, said Monday that the department did not have much comment on the legal issues the Law Court weighed in on. The decision, he said, speaks for itself.

But he added that the department is pleased that the court found that the use of the corridor for rail service has not been abandoned. As part of the trail project, the rail bed bed along the entire length of the corridor between Hancock and Pembroke was rebuilt for possible rail use and is maintained with that possibility in mind, he said.

Officials have said that, since the old rail line was discontinued in 1985, much of it had fallen into disrepair. Before the trail project was completed, many sections of the rail line had been flooded by beaver dams or had washed out from erosion, officials have indicated.

Despite the disuse and formerly deteriorated condition of the rail line, state law makes it clear that an abandonment of rail service does not mean the rights-of-way for rail in that corridor have been abandoned, according to the Law Court decision. In addition, in 2007 the Legislature wrote in statute that MDOT “reserves the right to terminate at any time the use of the Calais Branch rail corridor for recreational purposes and to use the Calais Branch rail corridor for railroad purposes,” the decision indicates.

The court also wrote that though a prior owner of the corridor once had agreed in the late 1800s to maintain fences along both sides of the corridor to keep cattle off the rail line, a subsequent agreement in 1929 released that owner and subsequent owners from that obligation.

The department, the Law Court concluded, does not have “to reconstruct and maintain in perpetuity a fence to protect [the realty firm’s] nonexistent cattle from a currently nonexistent rail line.”

Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.

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